The Groningen Report: Marcel Roelofs
Interview: Bernd Eilts
Photos: Zoltan Acs
In thirty years the ZomerJazzFietsTour (SummerJazzBikeTour) has developed into one of the treasures of the Dutch Jazz Festival landscape. The Festival’s music is programmed by Marcel Roelofs, a legend, whose signature of musical taste is fabulously visible in this festival, but also in his programming at the Grand Theatre in Groningen since 35 years. Jazz improvised at its best!
Just one week before this 30th edition of the ZJFT starts, I had the pleasure to talk with the maker, Marcel Roelofs, exclusive for 60Minuten!
Marcel Roelofs talks to 60Minuten
Bernd: Dear Marcel, thank you very much, for making this talk possible. And very special also, that you invited us to come and visit you at your place, where you live, in the eastern center of Groningen.
Could you please introduce yourself a bit, before we jump into the big section?
Marcel: Since 1993 I make the whole programming of the bike festival ZomerJazzFiets Tour (ZJFT). This year it will be my 23rd time. Before that, the organisation of this festival knew me and my work. From 1981 on I booked concerts at the Groningen Grand Theatre. Also from 1988 until 1993 I was running an Impressario office, where I sold bands for the Bike Tour as well. Right now we have the 30th anniversary of the ZJFT, since 1987 and my work for them started in 1993.
People here in Groningen know me maybe, because I organized concerts for the last 35 years in the Grand Theatre. I always thought, next to programming and organizing a concert, it’s also nice to make a short introduction for the artists. Just to get some applause for the musicians. It’s also a good point, to chase the musicians off stage. Otherwise there might be hardly any difference within tuning and preparing and starting the concerts. I hate that. As for the audience I like them to know, okay: This is the beginning. In this case it was also more kind of a functional reason, to announce the artists my way.
Bernd: You are born here in Groningen?
Marcel: No no. I was born in Nijmegen in 1957.
Bernd: That’s far away!
Marcel: No, not really.
Bernd: How did you came to Groningen?
Marcel: I checked in to Groningen in 1976 for the first time. And I moved in here, from the North of Holland. I went to school in Den Helder. In that period, I choosed Groningen to live, because that time, I visited the big festival Jazz Marathon a couple of times, which was mind blowing for me. Some of my friends lived here in town already and I stayed with them in the weekends and it was a big revelation for me to see for the first time musicians like Cecil Taylor, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time and James Blood Ulmer for example, all these Free Jazz groups from the eighties. In Nijmegen I lived until I was five or six years old. Then we moved to Brabant, where I stayed until my fifteenth year in a small village between Tilburg and Den Bosch. And from there we moved to the North of Holland. All this, because my father had to move because of his work.
Bernd: So, Groningen became your central point because of all those musical highlights happening here?
Marcel: Even, when I was young, I was visiting concerts. When I was twelve, thirteen, fourteen years old, I was driving on a small motorbike, the “brommer”, of my neighbour friends, and we saw concerts in Den Bosch of Popbands from that time, like “Q65” and “Focus” and “Super Sister” and so on. I remember, my parents had a big Jazz music record collection at home, because they loved to dance on Big Band music, when they were young. So, at home, when it was supposed to be a relaxed field, we heard a Ben Webster record. Of course, my mother loved The Beatles, she had her collection of The Beatles singles.
Bernd: And you loved already the Jazz, when you were a child?
Marcel: Yes! I think, when I was seven years old, I picked the Readers Digest, a book kind of Magazine, where you could order a box with records. I was playing all the time the title “Sing, Sing, Sing”, from Benny Goodman. With a great drum solo by Gene Krupa. That was my favourite number, when I was that young, a very sensational song. I was growing up and exploring music, which was just normal for me.
Bernd: Thank you for this short introduction! Before we jump further, I would like to tell you my opinion about your work as a concert programmer. You reached many people through all those concerts you organized in the Grand Theatre since so many years and of course the ZJFT. These concerts always felt like parties. With these, you touched also myself! For your work, to be honest, you deserve at least my Nobel prize for making people very happy and feel very special and touched.
To visit concerts is also traveling. To visit Groningen as well. Many visitors come here from far, from other countries. Including musicians. To join a concert is like traveling. Thank you for your great work dear Marcel!
Marcel: If you promote concerts, you have a feeling of timing. And sometimes even don’t care about it. Because mostly, I was in a lucky position in the programming of Grand Theatre. When I discovered the band, and I could get in touch with them, and ask and invite them to play a concert. So, my work as a programmer is really personal. You really can see, what I liked in all those different moments in time. Of course, that’s a rare situation. But especially, in the first 30 years of the GT, the policy was, to protect the programmers taste. At first, the budget was so calculated, that the number of audiences didn’t had any influence on the music budget, which is completely contrary to what happens today. It was kind of a idealistic approach. It was always the choice of the GT to have confidence in a programmer. I never understood other jazz organisations, where they have to make decisions in programming and to agree in a meeting. It is like, you can’t make an artist create his paintings with a whole group of people involved. And let others decide, what colors or subjects he has to choose. I’m pretty aware of this, it was my signature for the last 34 years in the GT. Next to this, the GT was always a place, where they made their own theatre productions. They went on tour with their artists, and the theatre programming was the main thing. In that way I was always free to realize my own work and ideas. All the time!
Bernd: Did you had a contract for a long time?
Marcel: No! When I started, just the first couple of years, I was just part of a squad, like everybody else. The GT was a squatted building from may 1980 on and as a visitor I first walked in there because of a concert with Glenn Branca. I was overwhelmed! The next summer I finished school and I asked them: Can I help you guys? Can I do anything here? The GT was a former cinema with a huge balcony and they had plans to build a second stage. For this construction they bought second hand wood from an abandoned milk factory. There was a pile of wood of 8 meters high and there were still nails in it. Then I became Chief Nails! (Laughing!) My job was to get all the old nails out of the wood and to sort the wood. I got that job, even I’m not very talented at those skills, but at least I could eject the nails and sort the wood. In those days the GT as a squad was quite open, where all kinds of people walked in, like addicts and that kind of people. But they all said: Go in and help with the wood! The people, who lasted more than a day, could stay. The junks left in the late afternoon.
Bernd: This was the same period, where the ORKZ started?
Marcel: Yes, that’s true! The ORKZ and also the old police station. In the end of all the construction work around 1983 we finished the “Bovenzaal”, the upper stage. We had a crazy situation there! One of my first concerts I organized there by myself was with the Willem Breuker Kollektief and Vera Beths. They played the program “Rhapsody in Blue”. That concert happened very close to new years eve, beginning first week of january and that concert was sold-out with a 800 people audience! Later we had the rebuilding of the GT with the new stage balcony. And with that new construction it was never again possible, to get more than 400 or maybe 500 people inside. So, I never topped my first concert there! That work was not like a job, it was like your home, you lived there. I took all my time in there for at least the first 10 years. In that huge beginning period, the GT was a very exciting place. There were political people around, many people from the music scene, like punk-rockers for example. Also many artists, like painters, sculptors and writers. They all were interested to get in the GT and make something special of it. But in the end, the theatre people won the fight, because they were the best organized and so the GT started, of course, as a Theatre! So, I always stayed there all those years booking bands. Most of the time I worked with one technician for many years and he knew very well to balance the sound the best! It is a different way, to understand music like I programmed than Pop music. My general sound idea is an acoustic approach, even if it is improvised. Like this, I liked to work with steady sound engineers. One of my favourite ones was a guy called Tanko for more than twenty years. At that time, in the 80s, we also had a joint intiative called “De Salon”. That was more kind of a small performance place. At that time we had a big circuit with performance art, also improvised, new music, pure avantgarde. Places like STEIM in Amsterdam also belonged to that scene. During my time at highschool I already discovered Fred Frith, Tom Cora, Joey Barron, John Rose and the Canterbury Scene. There was another place here in Groningen that period called “De Oude Kattenbak”, located in a street called “Kattendiep”, a very famous old discotheque, that started even in the 60s. Now it’s a restaurant called “Hemingway’s”. Years later I worked together with the drummer Gerry Hemingway, he stayed in the City Hotel next door. There I once picked him up and asked: You know, that place, the salon, where we did a duo gig with the blind flute player, Earl Howard? Actually, it was amazing, how this guy figured out the space! I said: Well, they called the place after you! He said: Oh, really? “De Salon” lasted for four or five years. And still I organized concerts at the Grand Theatre, so I worked in both places. When I stepped into the GT, there was a series in Groningen called “Arts and Entertainment” that was announced by an artist, Leendert van Lagestein, who had an Atelier called “Corps de Garde”, what is now a hotel. Before that, he was on another address. I remember, I saw documentaries in the 60s, and saw there, that he was already busy with Art much earlier. He visited New York frequently and had very good connections with “The Kitchen” (www.thekitchen.org). In his Atelier he presented all these incredible New York artists, like Peter Gordan or Glenn Branca. Also european artists. This for me was like the standard, the real avantgarde. Not a place for amateurs nor fun stuff, but real listening music.
We also had theatre projects in the big stage downstairs, concerts happened all upstairs that time. If we had an Entertainment band upstairs, we didn’t feel comfortable there. This room worked the best, when we paid really attention to all that happened there. We created a genre, I called it “Oplet muziek”, you really check and listen to all, what’s going on. Everybody there was sitting in these old cinema chairs in rows, you couldn’t get a beer in, but, at that time people smoked a lot. In these circumstances, it was an easy step to promote Impro Music concerts there. Especially in the 80s, with the whole national situation of jazz, which was subsidised. There existed a Podium Plan, where the clubs should garanty half of the money and they got the other half plus travel expenses from this Podium Plan Foundation. That worked wonderful! For dutch improvised music those years were golden. We had groups like Maarten Altena, Willem Breuker Kollektief, ICP Orchestra, the whole dutch scene was there. You probably heard of this accident, it was in december 1983. In a stormy saturday night, there was a car accident and three jazz musicians died. This was the “Springband”, the Big Band of Willem van Manen (Gunter Hampel, Peter Brötzmann, Willem Breuker) and it happened in the night before they should play in the GT. Sunday morning I got a phone call from the bandleader, that a terrible accident happened. That was horrible, because at that time, we didn’t had Internet, and we expected also family of those musicians, who wanted to come to this concert. A really horrible afternoon! We had to cancel the concert and we stood there with a big coffee pot to bring the bad news to the people.
Except of the sound engineer I used, I always took care of the musicians myself, as if they were coming to my house. I picked them up from the Train Station, made food. And always was fighting to get some nice drinks for them in the dressing room. Because in a theatre situation people are not used to that. They are in a theatre group and maybe get a coffee, but that’s it. But in the music business this is different. This work was always a real happy work, even I worked my butt off (Laughing!).
Bernd: How did you get in contact with all those musicians?
Marcel: Well, in those days, before computer time (B.C.T.), I had a little office, where I had to be inside all the time, waiting for the next phone call from overseas or getting them on the line. Mostly in afternoons people called me. Because I was a big music lover always, I knew immediatly, who was on the phone. So, all happened through the phone and the FAX was a magic thing! And normal letters! Like this, I had much more contacts with people, the network was much better and more personal. Next to this work, I got in contact with other american artists, who were introduced to me by “Corps de Garde”. If you do pay attention to this musical avantgarde genre, which is only for a small audience, then people know how to find you. Even in those days it was kind of difficult music and there still aren’t really much places for them to play.
Bernd: So, they also were very much interested to come and play here!
Marcel: Yeah, sure! For example, the american musicians in that time got really highly paid in Germany. They had contracts with hotel suites and a swimming pool. But because of the East-West situation from that moment, just to save eastern germany and its economy, killed almost all culture budgets over there. The effect was, that the costs for touring became much lower.
Bernd: I saw, you often book the same musicians again, for example for the ZJFT and in there you have a magical love affair with special eastern german free jazz musicians, like Alexander von Schlippenbach.
Marcel: That’s true. They have their roots in the former “DDR” (German Democratic Republic). Also Conny Bauer with his brother. When I have the idea, there is an interesting musician or bandleader, I keep an eye on him. Often he will present after a while new interesting stuff again.
Bernd: They are not becoming Pop stars!
Marcel: Well, sometimes even this happens, like with Bill Laswell. But that happens only once. The whole Impro music scene is like a circus, especially these days. Now it’s much easier to connect with each other through the Internet. Also, there are less places to play now, I guess about 20% less than 20 years ago. In all of Europe! Which is bad!
Bernd: I just want to return to your activities in the GT. You organized there next to the normal concert activities also small festivals. One was called “Les Trois Jours”.
Marcel: Exactly! “Les Trois Jours” started in 1991 and lasted until 2007 and started by coincidence. In that period we had in Groningen inside the University activities called “Centre Culturel Francais” (CCF). They had a big network of activities in all Europe and all the world, including South America, Africa and Asia. Germany has the “Goethe Institute”, France has the CCF. Nowadays all these activities are gone. But at that time, the director of CCF Christian Mertrand contacted me, because he got an offer of a french jazz group and he wished to present them in the GT. We didn’t had to pay anything, and the name of this group was “Workshop du Lyon”. I said, well, when I came to Groningen in the 80s, there was a very strong Jazz Culture alive and also a big workshop scene. I used to be an amateur musician myself for round about 10 years in these workshop orchestras, playing alto saxophone. But for amateurs, there wasn’t that much audience available and I was a bit afraid to present a Workshop band inside the GT because of this fact. Once, in the 80s, I did a workshop festival, called “De Jonge Jazzdagen” (The Young Jazzdays). In the 90s, the big festival “Noorderslag” started, a more pop and rock music orientated festival for young groups, a belgian/dutch Meeting. The idea of that festival was created like a football game. Belgians against the dutch. Then I thought: Why not create a festival like that, but then the french against the dutch? Further the idea was, to have a three day long festival and get some attention from the audience. The GT did like all my ideas, especially the first 30 years, which was really wonderful. On both sides of the bar! (Laughing!) That was my idea, I wanted to present french jazz, french avantgarde jazz together with the dutch scene. Even I knew nothing about the french jazz scene that moment. Only Steve Lacy, an american and Steve Potts, another american horn player, who both lived in Paris. Then it turned out, we got the Steve Lacy Trio against the Ab Baars Trio first. Another day it was the Steve Potts Band against Frans Vermeersens Band “All Ears”. In the Steve Potts Band were two sidemen, Richard Galliano, playing accordeon, and also Michel Godard on tuba. In the 90s I often went to french Jazz Festivals to discover more of that music. In that period french new jazz was in Holland completely unknown, not even booked in the “Bimhuis” in Amsterdam. So, we made the Introduction! This festival “Les Trois Jours” turned out to be THAT festival for european new jazz. We always worked together with the Centre Culturel Francais (CCF), what was funny, because they had a director, who stayed for about four years, then a new one came. Always it was the big question, if I would be able to turn the new director towards this crazy music! Sometimes he wasn’t happy with this at all. But he was a Co-producer of this festival and started to grow into this crazy music and started even loving it! That was great! Those days we went to Paris sometimes, had some meetings there and when we came back to Groningen, we had a budget for the festival! Amazing! That was a big chance to introduce this music. When you are a club with a small budget, you are depending on tours. But on a festival, on a fixed date, you can attract people from everywhere traveling.
Bernd: After “Les Trois Jours” you created another fantastic festival, called “SoundsOf Music”!
Marcel: Yes. That came later. “Les Trois Jours” ended in 2005. Then the CCF closed its doors in Groningen, they didn’t had their own director anymore, they weren’t financial independent anymore. With this new situation we lost our Co-producer. After that I continued the festival with a new name, called “De Drie Dagen” (The three days), produced by the Grand Theatre only. I am good in promoting and organizing music, but to finance a festival is a different thing. From the 90s on, we also worked together with “Stichting Prime”, which was the contemporary arts foundation, especially for contemporary classical music. They organized a composers festival in the 90s, a new music festival for written music. After I organized for 3 times the “De Drie Dagen” festival, I was able to get the financial background together and we managed, to combine those 2 festivals. So it became a big festival within improvised music based on my ideas and written contemporary classical music. We glued those two festivals together. The Foundation Prime was already very well experienced in founding festivals and concerts. Later, it turned out, that Foundation Prime, with in a man called Frits Selie and myself, became the music department of the Grand Theatre. All the network, Frits used, was also very fruitful for the production of theatre and dance shows. Later on he became a producer of the dance company “Club Guy & Roni” (www.clubguyandroni.nl) and with in that, he had a much bigger network to arrange composers to work with a contemporary dance company. In his period with “Club Guy & Roni” he worked also with Heiner Goebbels for example. Then we started with a new festival called “SoundsOfMusic”. The step, to combine modern improvised music with modern written music. In the last 20 years, it turned out, that improvisers became more composers to develop their musical ideas. Composers are, because of the circumstances, mostly the performers of their own work, they become more often their own players. In the old days, these were two disciplines apart, but they grew towards each others as well. The difference between composing and improvising is very often the same.
Bernd: You know some nice stories from that period?
Marcel: Yes, sure! But let’s take a short coffee break first!
Bernd: I know, there exist a long time relationship also between you and Ernst Reijseger?
Marcel: Yes, we know each others and many other musicians for more than 35 years. I got connected a lot with Sean Bergin, who passed away four years ago. He always was welcome at the bike tour with any project. I like to present people, who you work with, in a special way, in special projects. With people, you don’t work, what do you do with them? (Laughing).
The Grand Theatre is killed now, sort of, being bankrupted. They still continue their work, but that’s another story. This is why all the websites of “Les Trois Jour” are gone. But on the site “www.lastfm.nl” I uploaded 35 years of my concert history. In 1982 I programmed my first concert in the Grand Theatre. It was very busy, because it was near new years eve. That was also part of a special announcement I did for a long time, called “UiTEiNDEN”, to celebrate with great music the last moments of the old year. I stole this idea from Willem Breuker and his song “Klap on de vuurpeijl”. Between Christmas and New Years Eve in Holland everything is supposed to be closed. Now this is different, but in the older days, the 80s and 90s, everything was closed. People had holidays and it was good to celebrate something special, something fresher than just meeting families with a lot of food during the christmas days. Later on, this turned out to be a great concept with the Prime Foundation. It became a triple bill!
During the period the Jazz Marathon happened, I got angry, that they never booked Fred Frith. So, I had to do this in the GT! The Jazz Marathon’s artists all stayed in a local hotel called “De Doelen”, located at the famous Grote Markt. They organized the transport of all their musicians through a bus transfer between the festival and the hotel. We, from the GT, taped posters on their buses of our concert with Fred Frith!
Very often we had the opening night of ZJFT, the Proloog, in the GT in the older days, also on other locations in the city. When the dutch saxophone player Paul Thermos passed away, I did a project with two saxophone bands. One saxophone sextet from Holland called “De zes Winden” and the “Rova Saxophone Quartet” from San Francisco. And I asked them together, to re-arrange Paul Thermos’ music.
Bernd: You also became a producer like this?
Marcel: Yes! You know, the situation on festivals was very open for this work. As a promotor for club gigs you just wait, for what’s on tour. My budget was very small and I waited always as long as possible. If bands had empty dates, they were open to play for cheaper prices. So, I was sitting like a bird in a tree waiting for the right moment. Like this, we were able to produce a concert in only six weeks. In a festival you have the opportunity to invite musicians for a longer period, not just for one gig. Then the chance is much bigger, to combine people and ask them, to work together. What I mostly did was, when a musician told me, maybe ten years ago, that he really loved this particular guy, then ten years later, I propose his own idea to him as a project. Of course, he forgot about it. But then said: Wow! What a good idea!
On many festivals, projects are programmers ideas. The musicians themselves just do it for the money, because its their job, but not really, because their heart and soul are involved. Then it is much more wonderful, to find combinations of people, who are not afraid to work with each others. And not afraid, to explore. Most of the time I work like that. I know, who this guy loves to play with, and when they later play together, because I make it possible, than a lot of energy comes free!
But sometimes its also just luck. Before the german trombone player Johannes Bauer passed away beginning of may this year in Berlin, we did a concert with the Bauer Brothers. Conny and Johannes Bauer, both trombone players. Actually, they never ever played before together as a duo! What happened then, was such a strong concert! Even we just had twelve people in the audience! But half of them later on bought a trombone, became trombone players themselves after that! The impression was really strong! I tried to get the Bauer Brothers for the bike tour and that turned out to become a whole new series. But it was nearly impossible to get their agendas fixed. Conny couldn’t do that gig. Later I went to a festival in France, in Nancy and even there, Conny Bauer couldn’t do the gig. I asked Johannes: Who would you like to play this gig with? Then Barry Guy went towards the bar and Johannes Bauer said: With him! And that became a great and amazing duo! (laughing). Another time I tried to catch Johannes Bauer and I needed a guitar player for this duo idea. Joe Sachse gets in! Actually, in total I organized 500 gigs in the GT in all those years!
Bernd: Did you ever receive a medal from the cultural city department of Groningen for your astonishing awesome work?
Marcel: No. Never. Only one time, the Arts Council gave me some extra money. But then the GT used it to repair the roof (laughing)!!!
Bernd: And now it is called the Marcel Roelofs roof!
Marcel: One time, the “Jazz Fanfare”, a group from Groningen, initiated the Marcel Roelofs Award. That was supposed to be an every year event, but it didn’t work like this. But, I am not dead yet!
Bernd: I just hope, that those people remember you after reading this interview!
Marcel: Eugene Chadbourne also played several times in the GT. One time he worked in a duo with Han Bennink. Han was playing on an empty pizza box! I also love to introduce Groningen initiatives of musicians and with that duo I inivited a Groningen band as an opening act. For this gig I invited Renee van Barneveld and Rudie Lenze, also called “Duo..Indo”, this stands for in dutch: “Duo door omstandigheden”, what means: a duo because of circumstances. Also Indo means Indonesia. They had indonesian backgrounds. It was very funny! Renee van Barneveld had until then in his career already much success. He played a lot in big stadions and so on. But here in the GT he was super nervous, because he had a gig on the very small upstairs stage, which is also very intimate. Probably it was more confronting to him.
Bernd: Dear Marcel, what does inspire you, for doing, what you do?
Marcel: What inspires me the most, is the energy on stage. I love music, where you can see and feel the character expressed towards the improvisations, their musical moves. In general I love concerts, where music expresses space, where musicians can influence the musical structure. Musicians like Tristan Honsinger, Sean Bergin, Tobias Delius are very strong improvisers in the actual dutch music scene. I hate it, when people re-play an old famous record, for example. Most of the time it is much nicer to listen to the original than to a cover.
Bernd: But I noticed, that you also traveled much to other concerts, even in Germany. My friends saw you there! You went at least to concerts in Hamburg, the Moers Music Festival, Nickelsdorff in Austria and they saw you somewhere in Berlin!
Marcel: It’s true, I confess! I was in Nickelsdorff one time. But these days I love to go to a festival in Berlin, called “Kulturgebräu” or “Jazz Door Festival”, at Prenzlauer Berg. The place is called “Kesselhaus”. It looks a bit similar like the GT, looks a bit brewy and has almost the same dimensions. There, they present also french and german new music. I love to be in Berlin in the summer and I love this festival. I also love to go and visit the big festival in Moers. In old times I visited lots of times all kinds of festivals in France.
Bernd: Do you also have a connection with the Jazzclub “Kultur Speicher”, organized by Wilfried Berghaus, in the small german city Leer?
Marcel: Oh yes, sure! Sometimes, when people are on tour, and our agendas fit, we present musicians just the next day. Then the band is super happy, because they only have to travel one hour. Often I go there to visit concerts, since round about 15 years.
Bernd: The programmer there loves also a bit crazy music like you, isn’t it?
Marcel: That’s true! Wilfried and myself have sort of the same taste. Am really jealous about him, because he in Leer has a really steady audience. I can sit here, being active for 35 years, but in Groningen, every five years you have a new audience. Groningen is a town, where everybody moves in and out! In the 80s, people were more interested to follow single musicians for a long time and they visited all their concerts. Nowadays the audience comes and goes. They almost never learn about artists circumstances and how musicians are connected with others. Also newspapers don’t write anymore about cultural things so much. Art pages are less, they don’t have special jazz journalists anymore. When I grew up, there was a journalist, Rudy Koopmans. He was a really enthusiastic writer. He wrote about a concert and I immediatly thought, what a pity, I missed that! (Laughing). I grew up listening to Radio programs a lot. I had a little notebook, and when i liked some bands, I always tried to find their music. Nowadays, with this crazy horizontal programming, all the specialists and their hours are gone. People don’t have the chance anymore to meet some even weird music by coincidence. Then people argue, it’s all on the web. But it’s soooo much!
Bernd: When you program a festival or a concert, musicians come back to you, like you mentioned earlier. Are they also happy, to play again in your circus?
Marcel: Yes, sure. People always love to be in Groningen.
Bernd: How does programming work for you? For example, with “The Necks”? They came here also already several times, right?
Marcel: Yes, that’s right. They even played here in their beginning, during their first european tour. Yes, for programming bands, you need to have a big network. Am not really keen in communicating, because I only respond, when I’m planning to work with them. Otherwise you have to say forty times NO every day. (We all laugh)!! Which is boring. I could do that, but then they should pay me more! So, I only respond to what I’m working or going to work with. A normal jazzclub has almost every weekend activities. In the GT it was always a long time series, but concerts only happened once a month, sometimes twice.
Bernd: My friends always ask me: What’s going on the in GT? Are there interesting concerts coming soon? Then I tell them about it, and we always meet in the GT again. They come from german cities like Hamburg, Bremen, Leer, from small villages in Ostfriesland. There, in the GT, we have then our anniversaries, our little parties.
Marcel: When I found out about Rudie Mahal, magazines started to write about him. I had a subscription for “Wire” for many years. They present extreme cultural highlights and artists. My game happened on the CD pages. On every page I found one or two artists, that played in my series. WIRE gave me the feeling, my concert series were totally inside the international cultural field of NOW. The GT program is as hip as some places in Berlin, New York, London or Paris. And you know what? Even these places in Berlin, London, Paris or New York have audiences not larger than fifty people, like we have. If you go to “The Stone” in New York, you can have a max. audience of forty people. Or a small club in Berlin. It’s only the dutch culture, that changes, that everything has to pay itself now. But this is not really working. When we first presented Marc Ribot, even a couple of years ago, there came only sixty people. And he is a real famous guy! Even when we presented him in the musicclub “VERA”, we did during the “SoundsOfMusic” festival, we counted ninety people only. This is Groningen size!
Bernd: But even with this fact, Groningen is a really fantastic stage for many musical styles! And so alive!
Marcel: The problem is, the way the Town Council reacts on this alive musical city. From next year on, there is no town funding anymore for any actual music, on any part. From 2017 on, it’s all gone. If they wanna be ambitious, then they still have to think about, what they decided to do. With Stichting Prime we had plans for new series of concerts and the festival in the GT. Also for concerts in the big “Aa-Kerk”, the big church on the west side of the city center. For these plans we reveived a positive reaction from the Arts Council, but the Town Council rejected these ideas. They said NO to five, six, seven more projects, what means, that only popular culture will have the official chance to grow. And any individual stubborn, crazy, edgy one, anything, that has a character, which creates a mark, falls out of the play. The GT also miss their national subsidies for production, and that was the big thing, almost one million euros. Now they might have 500.000 from the town, which is the same amount of the bankrupticy from two years ago. Now the new direction of the GT says: We do the theatre productions, we work together with producers, we don’t do programming. This september there will be a Council Meeting and a lot of organisations will react on this situation. All this, at least this is my opinion is because of people, who are in charge, like TV people, they look at numbers, not at matters. If the ratings are good, then you are in. If not, you loose. There is an old word from the 70s, “vertrossing”. We had a dutch TV station called TROS, and they did everything only for big audiences. In the 80s, we had this big festival called “JazzMarathon” here in Groningen. And with this festival we got a really huge international music scene. There, they presented all kind of Free Funk Music. They had groups like “Defunkt”, “Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time”, “James Blood Ulmer”. A year later we had six local groups inside, like the “Noodband” with “Greetje Bijma” and the whole scene. But slowly they all moved away, except “Gerard Ammerlaan”, who passed away some years ago. All these other musicians moved to Amsterdam or Rotterdam. And still the situation is like that. With them, the audience moved away as well. This is why I am so jealous of the small Jazz Club in the german city Leer, “Kultur Speicher”. They have a normal audience of eighty or hundred people every single concert. And everyone is still around. In Groningen, when people move out to the country side, they don’t go out anymore really. Okay, let’s take another break! Anyone in for a beer?
Bernd: Okay, let’s do it! But then we finally have to talk about the “Zomer Jazz Fiets Tour”! The longest talk ever this time!
Marcel: Well, it’s not by accident the 30th edition!! (We all laugh)!!
Bernd: The Zomer Jazz Fiets Tour (ZJFT) exists since 1987. And you started programming that festival in 1993. How did that happen?
Marcel: Like I told you earlier, I had a booking agency for dutch and international jazz bands and they knew me also from the GT. I worked a long time for Sean Bergin in all kind of different groups. Also I was able to get the Noodband in their last period, Frans Vermeersens All Ears, a trio called Distortio, Baritone Madness, a band with four bariton saxophones plus rythm section, with Gerry Arling and Harry Arling. Most of my bands had Groningen roots. Except Sean Bergin from Amsterdam. Nobody wanted to work with him, because he was just a crazy guy. But with the “Afsluitdijk” between us it worked! In the end, my office was just too small for all this work. In the beginning I had around six groups, but after some years I had twelve bands, what was just too much, I couldn’t handle all these energies anymore. I focussed more on my programming in the GT. Then I sold some bands to the Bike Tour and got in like that. And then they asked me to do the programming. The good thing of the bike tour is, that it is organized by people from this area. Most people live in this “Reitdiepdal” in those small villages like Garnwerd, Aduard, Feerwerd, Niehove, Ezinge and so on. And they are really proud, to do this! They put a lot of energy towards this festival, they work all year long for this one day. Just a week after the bike tour ends, we already meet around the table to start with new ideas for the next edition.
Bernd: What was the first idea, to organize a festival like this?
Marcel: It started with the situation, that on the country side, in these very small villages, the churches didn’t had a religious purpose anymore and were searching for more cultural means. Most of these churches are from the middle ages. And it was easy to organize concerts in there. The first edition of the Bike Tour included just a few churches and barns, like six or seven, and they organized just eight concerts. Everyone was going the same route and could enjoy all concerts the same day, everyone had the same kind of musical experience, which was wonderful. It turned out, to be such a good way to listen to music! If you are physically active between these concerts, that clears your mind! And these churches are so wonderful fully intimate! Even, you hate the music, and you are maybe tired because of all the wind and the rain during your bike trip, you become open for anything! And because these churches are so small, you can always see the live performance very well! When you listen to recorded improvised music, on a CD or record, this can make you crazy, it is difficult. But when you are there and you see the interactions of the musicians, then it can really deeply entertain! It is such a success, because everyone is out of his known role. The audience doesn’t need to be nicely dressed like in a nightclub or artclub. For everyone there are the same weather circumstances, tiredness, they maybe had a flat tire and oily hands. But even for the musicians the beginning phase was really improvised. Now we are almost perfect organized. But in the early days, if you forgot to say, you needed a chord for an Amp, there was nothing else than the chord of the Kosters wife’s iron! We had no mobile phones that time, so everybody was stuck there in the countryside and had to deal with that reality! When you walked in with a pedal and an empty battery, it stayed empty! The next full battery was maybe twenty kilometers far away! (We all laugh!) That was the charming part. We had a headquarter, that was only reachable through one phone number. When something broke, they called and the headquarter sended someone to fix it. But people also went there, to take a break, to get a peanutbutter-tomato-sandwich. Suzanne Rodhe, she is the initiator, our old chair(wo)man of the bike tour, she always made food for people. Now we have three Chefs making food all the time! We have now about one hundred musicians! And that does not happen in the backstage, it happens in someones house! Or in someones garden! That’s a really attractive part for musicians to meet each other, also in a very intimate way. Sometimes, they just walk to another gig or borrow a bike to get there.
Bernd: It’s a little bit like camping on an island!
Marcel: In a way, yes. We have a written scenario, detailed, for every five minutes for the entire festival. And that book is REALLY thick! We have three or four buses driving the staff from village to village, but also from there to Groningen. Musicians arriving at the airport, they have to be picked up from the train station, drum-sets going from here to there, amps are traveling around, musicians have to go back to the station, traveling back home or to get to another concert and so on. To make this scenario, we all have to think about every single minute, what happens on the festival, upfront! If someone brings his double bass or not, and all these actions. The team, we work all the year together with, consists of eight people. Of them two people are paid, the coordinator and myself as a programmer.
Bernd: So, you at least, are getting rich!
Marcel: No. (Laughing)!
Bernd: Why not? You should!
Marcel: In Germany, people have a years salary for this job. If you wanna hear another musicians story: On the first “SoundsOfMusic” festival we had the italian trombone player Gianluca Petrella. In Italy he is a superstar. But not in The Netherlands. He was our artist in residence here during three days, playing with Sean Bergin’s MOB. His idea was, to record a record in Rome with Sean and Hamid Drake. Another project he did was with local musicians and his last one was with his own tentet, an italian group. That day, the lady that took care of the catering, didn’t had one of her best days. The food was just not perfect. I was thinking: Oh man, if i wake up at 4 o’clock in the morning, get the plane at 7, it would become a very long day to come here. So, what I did after the last gig was, I bought for about € 50 french fries and all this super ordinary dutch special food. I knew, these italians were super hungry. A year later I went to a festival in Münster, and there this same Big Band of Gianluca Petrella played. There was a backstage bar and these italian musicians saw me and they were all like shouting out loud and falling on their knees! It was so funny, because in Germany with all the directors, you drive a big Mercedes Benz when you do this job, but I just got peanuts! But because I bought them a mountain of food around midnight, all the musicians loved me!
Bernd: Burkhard Hennen, the head behind the Moers Music Festival, did his job for many years!
Marcel: Yes! And he got payed from the City Council. Even now, they have a big budget. They can’t operate below a million. Amazing! This is why I feed the bike tour like a glove. I told you earlier, in the GT I programmed that kind of music that I thought of was interesting. On the Bike Tour, the locations are pretty small. They are mostly churches, but the biggest one can only have a max of 300 people, the others can have audiences like 75. Most of these bands are unknown groups. Especially their music is unknown. That is, why it works. I remember, years ago, while we had the bike tour, Han Bennink got an article in the big dutch newspaper “Volkskrant”. And it said, he would play in the small church in Oostum. Then everybody went to the very little village of Oostum! But they got a big problem there, because Oostum isn’t that big!
Our publicity budget for the Bike Tour is really low. If people come there once, they invite all their friends for the next edition. Even if you hate the music, you have a wonderful day! The energy around, the landscape of this area is very wonderful. You can eat everywhere, meet people everywhere. About the weather? That doesn’t matter really. Even when there is rain, it will be around 21 C and that’s really cool!
Bernd: Now the ZJFT got really big. You told me earlier, you have more than 100 musicians.
Marcel: Yes. The last couple of years we sold all tickets upfront and we had about 1.500 paid tickets. That is our maximum. This year we have a little bit more, because it’s our anniversary. Last year we had 28 concerts on 22 locations. Now we have 32 concerts on 26 locations. Since 10 years we offer special routes to make sure, not everybody goes to the same concert.
Bernd: But isn’t that also a pity? There are always, also this year, so many interesting acts.
Marcel: Also this year!
Bernd: Last years I came often with friends from Germany. Often by car, sometimes by bike, but when it was raining too much, we prefered the car of course. Like this, we could go, wherever we wanted. That was huge! That was interesting! But when you have 4 routes and go by bike, you can’t see all that’s maybe on your mental wishlist!
Marcel: You miss around 80 %!
Bernd: Exactly! So, why the festival is only one day and not a weekend long?
Marcel: Now we have 26 venues, which are churches, farmhouses. And every location has about 10 volunteers, who take care of the concerts and the audience, like preparing food. In total, we have about 300 volunteers. We think, it only works, when people like it. If people like it, it’s for one day. If you add another day, it becomes work! (Laughing)! For one day, you have a very good atmosphere, everyone is happy with a great energy. Once, we had a jubilee edition and did a bike route on a sunday in Groningen City. There, we presented improvised music in Ateliers, artists workspaces, from painters and sculptors. They also presented their work. But it only worked one day. When you are on a bike, you can visit around 5 concerts, maybe 6.
Bernd: It starts at 12:30 and end in the evening at 21h. Of course, you have a afterparty in a tent afterwards.
Marcel: Most of the time, the day audience leave after the last concert, maybe earlier. Just the local beer people stay longer.
Bernd: What are the special highlights for you this year?
Marcel: Because we are 30 years old, I thought about inviting some musicians, who were here 30 years ago and that were mostly Groningen people. Frans Vermeersen is playing twice, Alan Laurillard, Johan Huizing, Martin Stienstra and Bert Kleijn. Also Han Bennink was there, Ernst Reijseger too. Then I involved the new generation of Groningen bands, mostly from the scene around “Il Sole In Cantina”, Leo’s (Leonardo Grimaldi) place. Three projects I have with them: Sanem Kalfa with George Dumitriu, Giuseppe Doronzo with FALGA and a combination with Giuseppe and a swiss duo.
Bernd: You arranged that?
Marcel: Yes! Last year we had the national TV doing a report. They asked two suisse guys with alphorns to play in the landscape on the dike, called the “Reitdiep”. They recorded that all already on the friday. Saturday morning, one of them, the trombone player Robert Morgenthaler, woke up with a very thick lip. My idea was, that happened because his Alphorn was infected through some strange weed in the country side. I don’t know for sure! So, he couldn’t play. Then we asked Samuel Blaser to do the trombone duet, a swiss trombone player, who lives in Berlin. He was there already for playing a duo with Gerry Hemingway. But he never played Alphorn before! That was his first time! Giuseppe Doronzo was also there because of a project and we asked him to replace the fat-lip Morgenthaler with the guitar player Urs Röllin. Because he played last year, we asked him, if he will be in a good condition to come back to us. And why not then in a duo with Giuseppe as a third special guest!
Bernd: This way, you produced a new band!
Marcel: Yeah! That’s true! And it happens like that. By coincidence. Most of the time.
Bernd: I saw, you offered many routes the last years with dutch bands, but also from Russia, Switzerland, France, Germany.
Marcel: We also had our teams, called “De Jonge Honden” (The young dogs) route. With all young bloods. Or the “Women” route, with only female musicians. Or strings. Or trombones. Sometimes we feature regions, or towns. Depending on a strong scene there.
Bernd: When you look further for new talents in town, do you also look towards the PCC (Prins Claus Conservatorium)?
Marcel: We had a strong connection with the PCC during the “SoundsOfMusic” festival. There we had a Percussion Pool, led by Tatiana Koleva. She is teaching at the PCC. Now the Percussion Pool is a big independent group, everybody finished school. We also had the Michael Moore Pool. Michael Moore teaches at the Conservatorium as well. First we presented compositions from the Amsterdam Real Book, those compositions of the Amsterdam composers like Misha Mengelberg, Guus Jansen, Sean Bergin. Last year we did an Duke Ellington project, also on the Bike Tour. From that project the Michael Moore Bigtet started. With Jorrit Westerhof, Kaja Draksler, Giuseppe Doronzo and many others. Of course, if you program like this, there are always consequences! (Laughing).
Bernd: This year we will also have the big pleasure to hear Jorrit Westerhoff with Han Bennink. Is this duo also based on your idea?
Marcel: No, no no. This was Jorrit’s idea. I visited the “Doek Festival” at the Bimhuis in Amsterdam, the last one, where also the Michael Moore Bigtet played. Michael Vatcher couldn’t do it because of another tour and was replaced through Han Bennink on drums. That was the first time, Jorrit played with Han. After the gig in the bar, Jorrit came to see me and said: I wanna play with Han Bennink! I said: Oh well, we’ll see. In the end I thought that might be a great idea and helped them to meet. Now they already played a concert at “De Roode Bioscoop” in Amsterdam. For this concert on the bike tour I arranged a drum set for Han.
Bernd: What will be their programme? You gave some inspirations?
Marcel: Up to them! This concert will happen in a barn. But if concerts are happening in a church, with cello, violin and piano for example, then I know, how the sound will be. But what they’re gonna do, is in their hands. That’s different to classical concerts, where programmers determine. Improvised jazz stays improvised. They have the right to fuck up! (Laughing!).
Bernd: Earlier this evening, you told me, you played alto saxophone for almost ten years and connected strongly with music. But what do you want from music? You organize live concerts, what is your personal kick in there?
Marcel: Energy! A lot of energy! And I get happy from it! Just that! Some chemical stuff inside, some processes make me very happy! (Laughing!)
Bernd: Do you have a dream about the most perfect concert or festival? Maybe you dream about bringing back some old heroes, like Rahsaan Roland Kirk or Chet Baker?
Marcel: We have this year a Rahsaan Roland Kirk project and one with the music of Chet Baker/Gerry Mulligan. It’s funny, because really heavy improvisers turn towards their roots. Music, they loved, when they started. But to answer your first question: For me any concert or festival is perfect, as it is. I live like that, with all that, and all is fine. I do not put energy towards things or ideas, that do not happen, because it’s out of my budget or like that. That doesn’t make me unhappy. I just don’t do it! (Laughing!!)
Bernd: I want to return to the new artists on the scene, like Jorrit Westerhof, Kaja Draksler, Giuseppe Doronzo with FALGA. They all studied at the Jazz Department of the Prins Claus Conservatorium here in Groningen. You follow them already while they study?
Marcel: I get to know them when I visit concerts in Leo’s cellar club “Il Sole In Cantina”, also called “The Atelier”. I worked with that scene for the last five years maybe. What I really loved to see, happened during the last “Doek Festival” in Amsterdam. All those young cats finished school and they went to Amsterdam, where they enjoy the status of being a new king! There I also met this young polish piano player, Marta Warelis, she’s so good! She played already with Wilbert de Joode and so on. Also Ziv Taubenfeld, the young bass clarinet player from Israel. As being an old Groningen group everybody in Amsterdam is happy with them! It’s nice to see, that they still own a lot of the same power, they had here in town, now in Amsterdam on the scene. They had this attitude, to play as much as they could, everywhere! With the highest energy! And to have as much fun on stage as possible. That has effects in a city like Amsterdam, in the music scene there. They don’t arrive there as individuals, but as a group of ten, twelve people. With a new enthusiastic vibe! Because of the Michael Moore Pool, they have a very strong connection to Michael. So, it makes me happy, to be a little chain in this. Sometimes I book these groups as support acts in the GT. Like I did with “3Times7” as a support act for the “Nels Cline/Julian Lage” duo in february this year for example. Interesting about this is, the Music Highschools exist here since the 80s. But in the old schools, everybody just learned, how to play Be Bop. They were not interested in any other styles of modern jazz music. These people, who are now in school, they come from everywhere, and they don’t have anything to do with this old Be Bop/Free Jazz fight. They just have big ears and dive into it! That’s a good thing! When musicians have an attitude like this, then I like to work with them. I worked with Groningen groups before, but they never came from the Conservatorium.
Bernd: I also saw some names, that always come back in your repertoire of the bike tour, like Luc Ex, Jasper van’t Hof, Michael Moore.
Marcel: This is the Jubilee Edition! So, we have the first year musicians, then kind of a “Best Of”. We have Luc Ex, Jan Kuipers, Jasper van’t Hof, the giant ICP Orchestra. We have young and old improvisers, different generations. And we have some new groups. That’s on purpose.
Bernd: I saw Jan Kuipers years ago with Odeon Pope and Cornell Rochester playing in a very old jazz club here in town, called “De Spieghel”. He even played with Jamaladeen Tacuma and David Murray.
Marcel: Yes, we had them back last year! They played in a church, that was really killing!! Because of the acoustic! With Cornell Rochester in a church… .
Bernd: Also Tobias Delius came back to the bike tour many times!
Marcel: Yes, he is very special! He can come back every year and do, what he wish. In the past, we also did a “Carte Blanche” series, it was called “De Avonturen van Cor en Tobias met een drummer” (The adventures with Cor and Tobias with a drummer). That lasted ten years. Every year again they could propose an international improviser jazz drummer. So we had Tony Buck, Louis Moholo, Paul Lovens, Dylan van der Schyff and others, who played with piano, Cor Fuhler and tenor sax, Tobias Delius. That’s a crazy combination without a bass anyway. After ten years that was enough. Cor moved to Australia. In the first twenty years of the ZJFT Tobias Delius was the guy, who played the most concerts. And that was by coincidence. He has beautiful connections, now he lives in Berlin and brings back wonderful Berlin groups. Or comes back with the ICP Orchestra, or with Tristan Honsinger. Am a very big Tristan Honsinger fan! I like this crazy guy! If he had a project, I always presented it, in the GT or the ZJFT. We even produced an Opera by him “Il Profumo Del Diavolo”, with Tochinori Kondo from Japan, Sean Bergin, Mola Sylla. Tristan wrote the libretto in french, but during the production Mola Sylla couldn’t express himself that good in that colonial language. He sang beautiful in senegalese, but in french he couldn’t. So, the whole opera libretto had to be rewritten into senegalese! That was a small production, but very nice.
Bernd: The program of this years 30th edition ZJFT is written in dutch, the website also in english!
Marcel: Yes, we are international! The whole bike tour is world famous! If you go to any jazz festival or club in New York or any other city, they all know about this festival. This year, a dozen of british promotors are coming to discover dutch bands. If they like them, they are going to promote them in England. On this planet, people tried to copy our bike tour a lot, but they were never able to manage it really. One part of our success are the many volunteers we have. And the situation with our churches for cultural means. They tried to do it in Belgium with General Motors as a sponsor. But the church was against it. Just in general, I see some of our elements in other festivals. The Festival “Les Musicales de Pommiers” have a few concerts in the countryside and there you can go on a bike. The “Doek Festival” in Amsterdam Noord also includes bike trips now. In Austria, in a city called Wels, they have a festival “music unlimited” with one bike route, but that’s going straight in the mountains! It is a very nice festival! One time I was checking out for trains, but it’s very hard to get there. It’s not Vienna, it’s not Salzburg, it’s Wels!
Bernd: I just have now my last question, dear Marcel! Who are you, when there is no music around? Do you have a normal life without music?
Marcel: No. Music always keeps going on. I buy records almost every day and I discover new music all the time.
Bernd: So, you don’t have hobbies beside this? Fishing? Dancing?
Marcel: No. I’m totally straight forward! I’m beyond the point of no return!
Bernd: Thank you very much, dear Marcel, for this very interesting talk! Also I want to thank you very much for your hospitality – and the coffee and the beer!!